KEENE — Democratic Congresswoman Anne Kuster met with Southwestern Community Services officials Tuesday to discuss sequester cuts and the federally funded Head Start program.
Because of the 20 percent cut in Head Start programing, Southwestern Community Services, which serves Cheshire and Sullivan counties, was forced to close a classroom in Keene and Newport, accepting 47 fewer children this year. The cuts meant laying off two teachers, two aides and a family advocate.
In total, 176 fewer New Hampshire children will have access to Head Start this year due to the budget cuts, according to Kuster’s office.
A panel made up of staff and Head Start parents made the decision to close the two Head Start classrooms.
Southwestern Community Services has Head Start Centers in Keene, Jaffrey, Ashuelot, Swanzey, Drewsville, Claremont and Newport.
Centers like Drewsville and Jaffrey have only one classroom, so closing either of those classrooms would have meant closing the center there.
“We also didn’t want to disappear from communities. So we didn’t want to eliminate any centers,” said Ella Weber, Southwestern Community Services Family Services Community Partnership manager. “We made sure we went to the centers with multiple classrooms not that it made it any easier. At least we’ve not lost our presence in the community.”
Head Start is a free, income-based preschool program that provides educational services to students ages 3 to 5, as well as health, nutrition and social services to qualifying, low-income families.
“It’s not just the education of the child,” Weber said. “I say we enroll families, we don’t enroll a child. … As a team and a center we are there to make sure the family is succeeding on all levels, not just education of their child.”
Head Start works as advocates for the child and family that might be struggling and needs assistance in other areas, she said.
“Some of our families come from families that are in disarray, but our Head Start family is their family so some of the only family strength that they have is when their child is at Head Start,” Weber said.
Kim Paquette, Southwestern Community Services Education/Disabilities Services manager, said she is saddened by the educational setback of those children left out this year.
“I guess the saddest thing is 47 children aren’t going to get those day to day experiences and they are not going to become champions and learn all those things that these other children are getting to learn,” Paquette said.
John Manning, Southwestern Community Services chief financial officer, said that, in order to make the cuts, staff had to be laid off and parents employment was also affected.
“All of a sudden it means we have parents that are unable to go to work. It also goes beyond that, the people that we were paying to clean the classrooms and doing other things to support the program and all of a sudden they don’t have jobs,” Manning said.
Kuster clarified that she was not a member of Congress when sequestration was established and it has been frustrating for her to watch, she said.
“This is the most dysfunctional institution I have ever joined in my entire life,” she said.
Kuster said she is part of a group of newly elected Congress members, United Solutions, who are working to take a measured approached to cutting the budget as opposed to the “mindless” cuts that came about because of sequestration.
Kuster said she would take back their stories to Washington and work to ensure her colleagues in Congress on “both sides of the aisle understand the significance and the negative impact on our communities.
“I have said repeatedly that we do need to make cuts to the federal budget and every tax dollar should be spent wisely or not spent at all, but these types of mindless cuts across the board are the worst way to address our budget needs. What we need to be doing rather is make specific targeted cuts for duplication in services, waste, abuse, fraud and programs that we simply can no longer afford. There are very expensive, for example, subsidies for corporate agriculture that cost the taxpayers millions if not billions of dollars every single year.
We cannot afford that any more. But it’s not wise to cut services for low-income children and families here in the community when the needs that they have will simply expand.”